Links and Comments: Philip Pullman meets Matthew Hutson

There was a big profile of Philip Pullman in the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks ago– Philip Pullman Returns to His Fantasy World — on the occasion of the first book in his new trilogy that parallels his acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy published from 1995 to 2000.

I was struck by this passage, not about by the discipline of writing three pages a day, but for the superstitious rituals Pullman indulges in — this from an author who’s an atheist and whose His Dark Materials trilogy was famously anti-religion…

Every day from roughly 10 until 1, Pullman sits at his desk in a monkish study at the top of the house and produces three pages, longhand. He has written three pages a day ever since he started writing. Habit, he is fond of saying, has written far more books than talent. The ritual is sacred. As is the space. “Nobody’s photographed this, and nobody will ever photograph this,” he told me, both fierce and faintly amused by the severity of his own rule. “I’m superstitious about that, very superstitious about that.”

Arranged on the desk are various objects of mystical significance. “I write more easily, more comfortably, with less anxiety if I’ve got my various magic bits on the table,” he said. The magic bits consist of a piece of scientific apparatus used in the search for dark matter, a magnifying glass and his “special pen.” Pullman has three special pens — Montblanc ballpoints — one in his study, one in his bag and one on the table downstairs for letter writing and signing books that people bring to his door (“which sometimes happens”). There is special paper, too: “I started ‘His Dark Materials’ on the sort of paper you could get 30 years ago, A4, narrow-lined, with two holes. Then they started making paper with four holes, and I discovered I couldn’t write on that.” He acknowledged with a brief apologetic glance the lunacy of this statement. “This is what I did that’s even more bonkers. I had to finish ‘The Amber Spyglass,’ and I could only get four-hole paper, so I got some four-hole paper and some of those little white stickers and solemnly put them over the holes.” Eventually, he found a Canadian supplier selling his preferred, two-holed paper. “I’ve got enough for 10,000 years, I think.”

Pullman likes to inhabit such contradictions: a man who doesn’t believe in God but does believe in magic. One of his favorite books is “The Secret Commonwealth,” by a 17th-century Scottish minister, Robert Kirk, that explores life beyond empirical reach. Fairies, witches, ghosts. Does he really believe in these things? “When I’m writing about them, yes,” he said. “It’s not naïve, but the sort of answer it requires is one of the Keats type. The negative-capability type. Both believing and not believing. Skeptical about everything but credulous about everything, too.” He gets the kind of kick out of unreality that could be dismissed as childlike if it hadn’t molded his imagination. “I like the irrational, I like ghosts,” he said. “They help me to write.”

This is a perfect example of the attitude captured by Matthew Hutson’s 2012 book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, subtitled “How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.” Hutson’s thesis is that we can understand how the human mind is given to various beliefs that, with our emperical, logical hats on, we understand are irrational, i.e. not real — but how nevertheless if we indulge indirectly in some of those beliefs, they make us happier and more productive and less stressed. This works because our minds are not computers that can be entirely disciplined by logic; our minds have evolved over millennia to make us efficient at surviving in the natural world in which we need to get along with our fellow humans, and perceive that world in a way that encourages us to behave in ways that lead to reproductive success.

So: you are not a single mind. You can understand that, to take a trivial example, the piano that John Lennon composed “Imagine” on isn’t really different from any other piano — it doesn’t retain any kind of ‘essence’ of John Lennon from his having played it — but if it is awesome to you to go out of your way to be in its presence, go for it. You will be happier. (This is the first of dozens of examples in Hutson’s book.) Pullman’s mystical objects are another example. You are many minds. If your logical rational mind needs to assuage its magical-thinking counterpart of its doubts, that logical rational mind might well be more productive.

The chapter headings of Hutson’s book are an all-time hits list of categories of human mental biases, or ‘magical thinking’, about things that are objectively not true:

1, Objects Carry Essences: Cooties, Contagion, and Historicity
2, Symbols Have Power: Spells, Ceremonies, and the Law of Similarity
3, Actions Have Distant Consequences: Using Superstition to Make Luck Work for You
4, The Mind Knows No Bounds: Psychokinesis, ESP, and Transcendence
5, The Soul Lives On: Death is Not the End of Us
6, The World Is Alive: Animals, Objects, and Gods are People, Too
7, Everything Happens for a Reason: You’ve Got a Date with Destiny

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